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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

(Bahá’u’lláhThe Seven Valleys‘: pages 21-22 which ends with a hadith or tradition about a saying of Muhammad.)

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts appeared consecutively: the last two will come out next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Is the soul a smoke and mirrors job?

There is, in some scientistic quarters where materialism is dogmatic rather than enquiring, a prevailing distrust of any statements of a mystical nature. This scepticism routinely crosses over into suspicions of insanity even when the source of the mystical statement would, on closer investigation, be found to demonstrate a strong, balanced and exemplary character without any other sign of delusion. In fact, in the real world as against in the fantasies of reductionists, mystics are almost invariably very practical people, something that gives their mystical pronouncements added credibility in my view.

Ever since the so-called Enlightenment, our culture has been increasingly losing the ability to discriminate between madness  (seen as meaningless because hallucinatory and delusional, though for reasons I argue elsewhere not necessarily meaningless even so) and mysticism, which is not hallucinatory or delusional in any acceptable sense of those words. I would earnestly request anyone harbouring such a sceptical tendency as I describe, to suspend their habit of disbelief for a few moments for reasons that will become clear as this exploration advances.

Before you read beyond them I would like you ponder on which of the following passages was written by a philosopher and which by a religious person.

Meditation, the first man says:

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

The second man states of meditation that it:

. . . frees man from [his] animal nature [and] discerns the reality of things.

Even though I tried to equalise the style you probably got it right. The first statement comes from Peter Koestenbaum (The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy page 99) and the second from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Paris Talks: page 175).

I think you will agree though that they are more complementary than in conflict.

What each goes on to say is even more intriguing. Koestenbaum ends by saying:

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . .  the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are:

[Meditation] puts man in touch with God.

A Plan in The Mind's Mirror

A Plan in The Mind’s Mirror

The terms meditation, reflection and contemplation are used almost synonymously in many passages. In discussing what he terms reflection within the existentialist tradition, Koestenbaum speaks of it as ‘separating consciousness from its contents.’  It can be also termed disidentification when it involves separating our consciousness from our ideas of ourselves and leads into the deepest levels of our being.

So, it is not just mystics that find our ability to reflect remarkable. Existentialism, which is not known for a fairytale take on experience, gives it tremendous weight as does the Bahá’í approach. This is not a trivial issue. Both schools of thought, and many therapeutic approaches, see reflection in this strong sense as a key pathway to personal transformation, self-transcendence and the enhancement of society.

The Importance of Experience

We will postpone for a moment whether this entails an acceptance of other things such as the reality of the soul. What it does mean is that this capacity we have is subject to the test of experience by all of us. And when we try it out we may find it leads us in unexpected directions that call into question some of our most cherished assumptions. It will inevitably do so because it separates us at least for a moment from those assumptions, cuts across our identification with them, and enables us to look at them afresh. This is why we need to be prepared to suspend our disbelief long enough to put these ideas to an empirical test.

Our culture embraces its own narrow idea of empiricism. By this it generally means only controlled experimentation and excludes

A Feeling in The Mind's Mirror

A Feeling in The Mind’s Mirror

personal exploration through experience. There are many things in this world that we can only discover by doing not by reading, talking or thinking about them. Nor can we understand them by a method of scientific exploration that turns people into objects rather than subjects. In ‘objective’ mode, we become like a colour-blind neuropsychologist who knows everything about the way the brain processes colour but can never know what colour is like when we see it (I have adapted this comparison from David J. Chalmers: page 103).

Experiencing our ‘self’, in the fullest and deepest sense of that chameleon word, in order to discover who we really are, is one of those things.

So, I have a challenge for us all. I am suggesting that between now and the next post we all try the following experiment. We need to find a quiet space to do the following exercise at least once a day: it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. It is based on ideas from Psychosynthesis, psychology, Existentialism and the Bahá’í tradition. It is worth persisting with even if it feels somewhat artificial at first. Not to even try is pre-empting the possibility of an experience that could expand our minds. It works best if we approach it with open-minded curiosity as a personal experiment, not as a holy grail or a superstitious ritual.

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

Sit comfortably and at first simply read the following suggestions several times. When you feel ready, close your eyes, breath slowly and gently, and in your mind repeat the suggestions to yourself at least three times. Put your own ideas into the round brackets if you wish.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. My thoughts change from moment to moment. Just now I was thinking of (money): right now I am thinking of (these words): soon my mind will be preoccupied with (my next meal). So I cannot be my thoughts. I am my capacity to think, the well spring of all my thoughts.

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. My feelings change from moment to moment. One minute I’m feeling (angry), perhaps; the next moment I’m feeling (sad). So, I cannot be my feelings. I am my capacity to feel from which all other feelings grow.

I have plans, but I am not my plans. My plans change from moment to moment. One minute I plan to be (rich), perhaps; the next moment I plan to be a (poet). So, I cannot be my plans. I am my capacity to will from which all my plans grow.

I am a mirror of pure capacities. I am a mirror created to reflect the highest possible reality. I will do all in my power to cleanse this mirror and turn it towards the highest imaginable realities.

(This exercise is an adaptation of the Disidentification Exercise originally described in `Psychosynthesis’ by Roberto Assagioli: see earlier link.)

Next time we will take a long look at the implications of this. We will look at what the distinction between a mirror and what it reflects suggests about us. In the meantime, happy mirroring!

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Today I was planning to begin a sequence about Sylvia Plath as a follow up to my various recent reconsiderations and republished posts on the subject of creativity.

Two things have derailed that plan. One is that progress has been far slower on the Plath posts than I had anticipated. The subject is far more complex than I had initially thought. I’m hoping to be able to get that sequence off the ground the Monday after next instead.

Perhaps more significantly, in terms of setting a more complete context to help convey how important it is to gain a valid perspective on the role of the arts in shaping our experience of reality, in the middle of this month I experienced a crucial light-bulb moment. I’m still struggling to find a way of conveying this clearly. Anyway, here goes with my best attempt so far.

Preparatory Ruminations

For some time I’d been mulling over how best to clarify my priorities as the years are rolling by, and at some unpredictable point in the not-too-distant future I’ll be compelled to vacate the increasingly ramshackle caravan of bones and blood I’ve been travelling in for the last 79 years.

At the turn of the last century, seeking to hold in mind certain key characteristics of desirable collective action within the Bahá’í community, I created an acronym as a mnemonic: C.A.R.E. The initials stood for consultation, action, reflection and experience. As I’ve got older, and my capacity for travel and vigorous social engagement has declined, I’ve come to feel that I can’t sustainably lift my game to that level anymore.

The mnemonic needed revising.

Fairly recently I created a variation that seemed to work better for me now: consultation, altruism, reflection and expression.

I’d changed only two words — one for ‘A’ from ‘action’ to ‘altruism’, and ‘E’ from ‘experience’ to ‘expression,’ but that seemed to make the processes they suggest more manageable. I felt the replacement associations to be more inclusive and empowering, and don’t exclude some aspects of the older ones. Expression is a wider term than ‘action’ and does not exclude writing, one of my favourite habits. It also gets me off the hook of feeling guilty because I am not being enough of a practical activist. Altruism does more work as the letter ‘A’ than action did, and implies both compassion, action and interconnectedness.

The letter ‘C’ for me now probably also is more linked to creativity than consultation but doesn’t exclude it. There’s a lot more baggage attached to that letter for me though as the picture illustrates.

The new associations reinforce the word ‘care’ meaning action, feeling, concern and/or help etc.

Even so, I wasn’t quite sure I’d got the whole package sorted yet.

I was still working on how to operationalise this mnemonic, and struggling to get beyond too vague a sense of what it implied about how I should operate. I couldn’t escape the feeling that it only gave a general sense of how, and possibly what but not why. I was also progressing towards a realisation that staying calm and not getting triggered by frustrating experiences was also important, and that all forms of caring mattered  – none need to be seen as a distraction from my ‘Bahá’í work’ or my other duty-fuelled passion – ‘reading and writing.’ Even taking care over putting out the laundry on the washing line had its place!

The Light Bulb Moment

Then new insights came.

On the back of a fleeting comment I made, in a recent conversation, that Iain McGilchrist, in his recent book The Matter with Things, was stating that art can serve as bridge between our consciousness and the ineffable aspects of reality, I came to see all too clearly a truth that I have been blind to all these years: art is not just a meaningful but subordinate domain to science and religion – it is of equal importance. We need all three if we are to mobilise all parts of our brain to enable our minds to grasp almost any important and complex truth more completely in all its aspects. One of these domains is in itself not enough for most of us, at least.

Upon what was I basing my sense of McGilchrist’s perspective?

In The Matter with Things he makes statements such as,[1] ‘[t]he Beauty and power of art and of myth . . . enables us, just for a while, to contact aspects of reality that we recognise well, but cannot capture in words.’ He’s not arguing that words are completely useless. We would be lost without them, but ‘[t]he work of art exists precisely to get beyond representation, to presence, even if that presence is itself composed of words, as it is in poetry. . . . The work of art… is semi-transparent, translucent: we see it all right, and yet see through it to something beyond.’

Imagination, for him as for Coleridge in the past[2], (my emphasis) ‘far from deceiving us, is the only means whereby we experience reality: it is the place where individual creative consciousness meets the creative cosmos as a whole.’ It goes even further than that, as he explains in a quote from Geoffrey Bateson:[3] ‘mere purposive rationality, . . . unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life.’

Even though, in our age of mechanistic materialism, we disparage art and imagination as well as religion, we are still ‘never without a mythos of a kind. In the absence of the celebration of the timeless mythoi given us through art and religion, we do not avoid espousing myths of our own making, much impoverished though they must inevitably be: nowadays they are those of the Mindless Machine and the Selfish Gene.’

So where exactly does that take me, and why does it matter so much and gets me so excited?

The realisation of art’s equivalent importance almost immediately created the acronym S.T.A.R. in my mind — a peak experience, in its way, because of the uplift in spirits that it generated; certainly a light-bulb moment at the very least. If I am to provide true C.A.R.E., in the sense I have just explained, I must resolutely follow my S.T.A.R. It’s only taken me 79 years to realise this. In fact, only by taking CARE and following my STAR will I really be able to achieve anything remotely close to my life’s true purpose.

As soon as the insight came I tried to capture it in rapidly scribbled notes. I’ve used these as the basis for this post but I’m still not convinced I’ve done it justice.

Have I really at last reached a proper, deeper understanding of what I should be doing with the rest of my life and how and why I should be doing it — questions that have been bugging me for ages?

This is such a revelation. I can’t quite capture all its many meanings. This not only explains my mysterious and compelling sense of quest, a desperate drive to search for elusive meaning — something that has driven me ever since my wakeup call in the mid-70s at the encounter weekend described elsewhere on this blog. It also gives me a far better sense of where and how I should be focusing my energy and attention.

I think a lot more energy than I was aware of was struggling to bring this crucial insight to the surface of my mind through miles of labyrinthine potholes and passageways in my brain, which might account for why I felt so drained on the run in to the realization, and so energized since.

Next time I’ll have a stab at trying to explain why this all matters so much.

References:

[1]. Page 631.
[2]. Page 767.
[3]. Page 636.

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Given the recent post taking another look at psychosis and trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

In the previous post I ended up exploring James Davies’ perspective in his recent book Cracked. I was focusing upon his emphasis on relationships rather then medication as the more effective way to help those with psychotic experiences.

Pseudo-Science

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

This resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position as expressed, for instance, in Century of Light (page 136):

What [Bahá’ís]  find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.’

He quotes Bracken’s view on how this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Instinctive Incredulity

However, we are even further away from generally accepting that some experiences labelled psychotic may have spiritual dimensions.

Christina and Stefan Grof’s indictment of our civilisation in their book The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as Davies (page 235):

Though the problems in the world have many different forms, they are nothing but symptoms of one underlying condition: the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of modern humanity. In the last analysis, they are the collective result of the present level of consciousness of individual human beings. The only effective and lasting solution to these problems would, therefore, be a radical inner transformation of humanity on a large scale and its consequent rise to a higher level of awareness and maturity.

David Fontana also writes from direct experience of this painful level of materialism and its default stance of resolute incredulity when faced with any evidence, no matter how compelling, in favour of a spiritual dimension to reality. He had to combat it at almost every turn of his investigations. He even bravely admits to being contaminated by it himself. In the in-depth survey of his book Is there an afterlife? he writes (page 335):

My difficulty in writing about Scole [a long and detailed exploration of psychic phenomena including material effects] is not because the experiences we had with a group have faded. They are as clear as if they happened only weeks ago. The difficulty is to make them sound believable. It is a strange fact of life that whereas most psychical researchers interested in fieldwork are able to accept – or at least greet with open minds – the events of many years ago connected with the mediumship of physical mediums such as Home, Palladino, and Florence Cook, a strain of scepticism fostered by scientific training makes it much harder for them to accept that similar events may happen today, and may even be witnessed by those of us fortunate enough to be there when they occur. I mentioned in my discussion of the Cardiff poltergeist case… the struggle I had with my own belief system after seeing the phenomena concerned. When in the room while they were taking place I had no doubt they were genuine, but as soon as I began to drive home I started to doubt. . . . . The whole thing seemed simply unbelievable.

He adds:

It took a lengthy investigation, including one occasion when I witnessed phenomena while I was on my own in one of the rooms where the disturbances took place and the owners were two hundred miles away on holiday, before I could fully accept that poltergeist phenomena can indeed be genuine, and provide evidence not only of paranormality but, at least in some cases, of survival.

The Grofs articulate the challenge exactly (page 236)

The task of creating an entirely different set of values and tendencies for humanity might appear to be too unrealistic and utopian to offer any hope. What would it take to transform contemporary mankind into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of colour, language, or political conviction – much less with other species?

They list our current characteristics in detail including violence, greed, habitual dissatisfaction and a severe lack of awareness that we are connected with nature. They conclude, ‘In the last analysis, all these characteristics seem to be symptomatic of severe alienation from inner life and loss of spiritual values.’

To describe it as an uphill struggle would be an understatement. Climbing Everest alone and unequipped seems closer to the mark.

They see at least one window through which the light of hope shines (page 237)

[M]any researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology believe that the growing interest in spirituality and the increasing incidence of spontaneous mystical experiences represent an evolutionary trend toward an entirely new level of human consciousness.

As we will see in the final two posts, our medicalisation of schizophrenia and psychosis might well be slowing this process down. If so there is all the more reason to give the Grofs’ case a fair and careful hearing. This will not be easy for the reasons that Fontana has explained.

Incidentally, after acknowledging that absolutely convincing proof of the paranormal seems permanently elusive, after all his years of meticulous investigation Fontana reaches a conclusion very close to that put forward by John Hick (op. cit.: page 327):

Professor William James may have been right when he lamented that it rather looks as if the Almighty has decreed that this area should forever retain its mystery. If this is indeed the case, then I assume it is because the Almighty has decreed that the personal search for meaning and purpose in life and in death are of more value than having meaning and purpose handed down as certainties from others.

In his book The Fifth Dimension, John Hick contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

More of that next time.

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Tipping Point

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts appeared last week: this is the final one.

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

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From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts appeared last week: the final two are scheduled for today and tomorrow.

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, the left hemisphere view has become the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships, though, are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality. The left hemisphere tends, in its black and white world, fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Rifkin has done his best in his impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

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In spite of my great admiration and respect for his scholarship and the immense value of his basic position that we are dangerously in thrall to the arrogance and limitations of our left hemisphere’s approach to the world, there are two possible caveats I have about the picture McGilchrist paints, both of which I’ll explain in the next two posts, but with some degree of caution given the strength of the rest of his argument and the degree to which I resonate to it.

I’ll begin with the one that concerns his total failure to mention the role of emotional trauma in the development of schizophrenia, as this is particularly resonant with my own work in the NHS.

The other, which I’ll deal with in the final post of this sequence, concerns his sense that there is a negative correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. David Horrobin’s The Madness of Adam and Eve makes the case for schizophrenia’s strong connection with creativity and cogently conflicts with McGilchrist’s position – strongly enough for me not to be inclined to dismiss it out of hand in spite of Horrobin’s poorly received general thesis about the role of schizophrenia in humanity’s evolution. Additional support for my caveat may come from Charlie English’s account of the Surrealists and schizophrenia, as described in his book – The Gallery of Miracles and Madness – which describes the perils of art under fascism in Hitler’s Germany.

Trauma

McGilchrist makes a strong case for believing that schizophrenia displays all the typical characteristics of left-hemisphere functioning as found in clinical cases of right hemisphere deficits, which would strengthen his case for schizophrenia’s negative correlation with creativity, as for him creativity is uniquely located in the right hemisphere. More on that next time.

He also refers consistently to genetic rather than environmental causes.

The closest he gets to acknowledging any kind of role for trauma is when he states,[1] ‘[p]sychosis may be precipitated by right brain injury or surgery.’ Basically, though, his position is captured in such statements as this:[2] ‘Schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa are in fact genetically linked, and each is common in genetic lineages of the other.’ There are no references to the possible role of other kinds of trauma not involving brain damage, such as sexual abuse and domestic violence. The word ‘trauma’ does not appear in his index.

In terms of my more recent research into this issue, perhaps the most graphic account of the possible importance of trauma in the incidence of schizophrenia can be found in Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score[3]. He describes his work on a ‘ward [set up to determine] whether psychotherapy or medication was the best way to treat young people who had suffered a first mental breakdown diagnosed as schizophrenia.’

He shares what he learned from the patients:

The quiet of the night seemed to help them open up, and they told me stories about having been hit, assaulted, or molested, by their own parents, sometimes by relatives, classmates, or neighbours. They shared memories of lying in bed at night, helpless and terrified, hearing their mother being beaten by their father or a boyfriend, hearing their parents yell horrible threats at each other, hearing the sounds of furniture breaking. Others told me about fathers who came home drunk – hearing their footsteps on the landing and how they waited for them to come in, call them out of bed, and punish them for some imagined offence. Several of the women recalled lying awake, motionless, waiting for the inevitable – a brother or father coming in to molest them.

The link between schizophrenia and trauma is, I believe, strong and unequivocal, though also almost unrecognized by the young doctors van der Kolk worked with at the time, who ‘rarely mentioned stories like the ones I’d heard.’ He goes on to explain[4] that ‘more than half the people who seek psychiatric care have been assaulted, abandoned, neglected, or even raped as children, or have witnessed violence in their families’ and shares how surprised he was that a ‘dispassionate’ clinical focus was so often focused on a patient’s symptoms and their management ‘rather than on understanding the possible causes of their despair and hopelessness.’

My earlier explorations of the research seemed to point very much in the same direction.

Eleanor Longden and John Read take a long hard look at the evidence for the involvement of trauma in the incidence of psychosis, and look carefully at the implications of that in their article The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis.[5]

They describe an explanatory model that states clearly that trauma as the child grows damages the brain in ways that are likely to create psychotic experiences:

The traumagenic neurodevelopmental (TN) model of psychosis (Read, Perry, Moskowitz, & Connolly, 2001) synthesises biological and psychological research to emphasise the similarities between structural and functional abnormalities in the brains of abused children and those of adult patients with psychosis (which, correspondingly, reflect the differences between patients with psychosis and healthy adults, and traumatised and non-traumatised children). A major premise of the TN model is that the heightened stress sensitivity consistently found in patients with psychosis is not necessarily inherited, but caused by formative exposure to abuse and neglect.

They discuss in more technical detail than it is appropriate to include here exactly what kind of damage has been done to the brain.

Shields in his paper Psychosis As A Mechanism For Coping With Existential Distress makes a similar case:[6]

This paper proposes that . . . . one sees psychotic episodes for what they may be: a mechanism for coping with existential distress – a way of being that allows an individual to escape existential realities when that individual cannot avoid these things otherwise. . . . .

He goes on to clarify what he means:

. . . if existential distress becomes unavoidable but unmanageable . . . . a psychotic episode can function as a dissociative mechanism for avoiding that distress.

Sadly, my own clinical experience seems to validate this perspective, and it is disappointing to feel that McGilchrist fails to take this into account, in spite of its possible relevance to his exploration of our left hemisphere’s unhealthy dominance both in our lives as individual’s and within our Western culture as a whole. Trauma’s impact on culture in this respect would entail creativity’s being reduced as well as rigidity increased.

I want now to explore fairly briefly three examples from my own experience, which I revisited to check in case I am simply dragging trauma in, after joining dots that don’t belong together left hemisphere style, to create a delusional pattern to confirm my anti-psychiatric prejudices. Ian’s story is dealt with in more detail elsewhere on this blog.

Talking to Ian

Ian

Ian was a 50 year old man with an eight year history of being tormented by voices telling him to kill himself and fly with them to far-off places. Describing his experience of the voices he said: `I was living in a dream world. I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. The voices were plaguing me so much that if I tried to think about something they’d side-track me. And I’d start thinking about what they were saying to me, and start thinking about doing something about it. I couldn’t think in a straight line. It was just going round and round in circles. They used to wake me up at night. They got loud when I was ill. I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by jumping under a train. I thought it would just be a few seconds of confusion and then it would be all over. I didn’t mind if being dead was just black and nothingness. And if it was flying with the voices all round the world, I didn’t mind that neither. It was better’n what I had.’

He was on medication when I first saw him. `It wasn’t having any effect at all. I was on quite an high dosage. I was on 100 mgms of Haldol a week, and 600 mgms a day of Chlorpromazine.’

His view of his future was bleak. `Just the voices, and hospital, really, and medication. That’s all there was in life. I couldn’t see any point in any thing. And I couldn’t see any point in doing anything else. I thought it was just schizophrenia. And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that. So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive.’

At first he found it difficult to trust me. He requested to bring his key-worker from social services with him and I agreed. Even then he found the going very rough.Gradually over a period of three or four sessions he became more able to disclose some of what was in his mind both about the voices and about his past.

For him there seemed to be two breakthroughs.

One was early on. `I bargained with the voices. I kept my promise to them and talked to you, and things got gradually better.’  It wasn’t a question of shouting them down: `I just talked to them quietly. I told them I knew they were unhappy and that I would do something about it. I asked them if they could let me sleep. It took a coupla nights. Then they give me a break.’

At first the pattern of negotiation took this vague form: it became more precise and specific as time went on. He had not felt though that it would turn out to be as easy as it was: `I didn’t think I could get in contact with the voices so easily. I thought it would take a lot longer. But I found that it happened pretty quickly.’

The other breakthrough, built upon early work to get him more in touch with his emotions, came a dozen sessions later. `I knew something was bothering the voices. And I think it was over the split up with my partner. And the pain that that caused which I hadn’t dealt with. I just pushed it to one side. I hadn’t come to terms with it. . . . Because I was sad inside and because I was still hanging on, really, the voices kept plaguing me. They were feeding on my unhappiness.’

This was not an easy process. In fact there was still a great deal of work to do at this stage. None the less he was able to describe very clearly the way emotionally-loaded events or actions were related to the voices for him: `I had to deal with the feelings. Feelings were something I’ve always suppressed. [The voices] kept feeding on my suppression. I kept saying `No. I didn’t do that’ or `No. This hasn’t happened’ and they kept getting worse and worse until it got unreal.’ And even though a painful process of emotional re-education still lay before him, the voices had almost completely gone: `I haven’t had ’em for eight weeks. I’ve had ’em for a short period, calling my name. But they soon went.’

He summarised his progress in the following way: `I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there (i.e. in the way he was dealing or failing to deal with his emotions). I thought it was just schizophrenia.’

As you may have already suspected his account raised an interesting quandary.

It could be said that, although he had been diagnosed schizophrenic, really he was depressed. The efficacy of an intervention aimed at his emotions therefore worked because the disorder was of the emotions. There would then be no indication that such an intervention would work with a genuinely psychotic patient.

Ian’s own view was that, when we first worked on the voices, he was in the grip of what he views as “schizophrenia”, but that at a later stage, when the voices faded out, he was depressed. He would not have been able to work on the voices then, he argues, because he didn’t care what happened to him: he was not hamstrung in that way when he was “schizophrenic”. The psychiatrist’s view is that there is still no doubt that Ian is suffering from schizophrenia.

My sense is that, in line with psychology’s perspective, schizophrenia is a spectrum or dimension not a category. People can be found at difference points along a line rather than locked in separate boxes, so there are probably few ‘pure’ examples of the extreme form of schizophrenia likely to be found at the end of the spectrum. This consideration may also be relevant when we come to look at creativity in the next post.

My revisiting his account in the light of McGilchrist’s omission of emotional trauma from his account failed to completely reassure me in terms, at least, of my own experience.

Another two cases give more compelling support for the trauma hypothesis from two different angles.

Helen

In 1988 a young woman persuaded her GP to refer her to me. She had carried a diagnosis of schizophrenia since she was 16: it had never been questioned. Before that she had had a twelve year history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father which went undisclosed and unnoticed at the time. She wanted to talk about the abuse to someone. An OT and I saw her together, with some trepidation. After all, psychosis and psychotherapy weren’t supposed to mix in those days. I’m not sure yet how different it is now.

I allayed my fears with an article that argued that, although ‘schizophrenia,’ a label that is increasingly questioned nowadays, was not in itself amenable to a `talking cure’, people with this diagnosis could benefit from counselling for other problems. We plunged in.

It took more than a year for her to begin to describe the abuse, so painful was it for her. She could focus on it for no more than ten minutes in each hour at first. After that she became overwhelmed with terrifying hallucinations of her father, hallucinations which impinged upon all her senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste and vision. The only way she learned to determine afterwards that he had not really been there was to observe that she had no marks upon her body. Generally it would take the rest of the session to help her regain control of her own mind.

As the months went by she could bear to reveal more of her painful story, though always in small instalments. Her fears about telling it diminished, but she still had not really come to terms with the emotional pain and the anger. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot share any of the particulars of her story. She was able, eventually, to break free of an abusive marriage. She gained greater control over other hallucinations.

However, one day, as our work continued and she became gradually more able to tolerate working on the memories, she was readmitted back into hospital. When I next met with her she explained what had happened.

She had ended up in a place that reminded her of one of the worst experiences of abuse. She was overwhelmed by all the original pain and terror. In my jargon, she had been re-traumatised.

We discussed her options. She could either remain in hospital on high doses of medication until the impact of this faded, or she could move to a residential facility with the close support of staff she trusted to work on these feelings and memories with the minimum of medication. She thought about this as she sat there, her eyes full of tears on the edge of uncontrollable sobbing. She chose to stay in hospital rather than have to face these feelings anymore.

There was never any doubt, in her case, of the diagnosis of schizophrenia nor of the reality of her traumatic history.

John

I was part of a Team running a 12-bedded unit working with people whose diagnosis of schizophrenia had been labelled ‘treatment resistant,’ which should be translated as meaning not helped by medication. As a result their lives were constantly disrupted by recurrent episodes of psychosis usually leading to several hospitalisations a year. People referred to us generally stayed at least two years, sometimes longer, and were carefully assessed to determine, if possible, the exact roots and meaning of their psychotic experiences. Strong relationships were built over time with all the residents who would allow this to happen. The revolving door lifestyle generally speaking no longer plagued them after that.

An 18 year-old young man was referred to us from the Acute Ward. He had been admitted on a section as a potential danger to others. He was convinced that Satan and Jesus were fighting a battle with fire in the world around him. Some people were even allying themselves with Satan in his view. He was determined to prevent this if he could and was threatening to kill those who, he believed, were on Satan’s side.

He was not able to give us any clear account of why or how he had come to this state of mind. However, because he was significantly younger than most of our residents, we were able in this instance to interview his mother, who was happy to share a detailed picture of his background and early experience.

It was a revelation. The most important insight came from her account of the incident that led her to leave her marriage. Her husband, the young man’s father, was an alcoholic. One day she walked into the living room, when her son was just a baby, and saw her drunken husband dragging the infant towards the coal fire with the clear intention of putting his feet in the flames. She managed to rescue the child and find a place of safety for them both.

A child of that age would not be able to form recoverable episodic memories that he could explain in words to anyone else. However, his emotional brain could well have retained vivid and powerful impressions of the incident in terms of the heat, the flames, the anger, fear and conflict. This would create plausible grounds to conclude he had been sufficiently traumatised to be vulnerable under stress later in life to a psychotic episode. It does not take a genius to see that his persecuting father, even from such vague but powerful memories, could end up being translated into Satan, his rescuing mother into Jesus, and the weapons of the conflict between them into flame, to symbolise the terror he couldn’t consciously recall, but which still flooded his mind. His body, to paraphrase van der Kolk, still stored the score and scarred his mind.

My experience working in mental health, not just with schizophrenia of course, pointed clearly towards trauma as a frequent factor in the incidence of mental illness. However, it sometimes, perhaps too often, required significant levels of patient research to detect its role in an individual’s history. Such efforts were not always successful. For example, if had not had access to John’s mother and if she had not been prepared to openly share such painful details, we would never have made the connection been his trauma and his hallucinations and delusions. However, in my view, absence of evidence in such cases, is not necessarily evidence of absence.

Conclusion

In the light of these examples I’m afraid I find Iain McGilchrist’s perspective on this particular issue somewhat disturbing. It doesn’t seriously detract from the great value of his basic position that left hemisphere fuelled materialism has corrupted our culture, but it does constitute, for me at least, a significant and unfortunate omission that will almost inevitably distort people’s perception of a socially significant challenge.

Next time, I’ll be taking a look at schizophrenia and creativity.

References:

[1]. The Matter with Things – page 136.
[2]. Op. cit. – page 145.
[3]. The Body Keeps the Score – pages 25-27.
[4]. Op. Cit. – page 27.
[5]. In the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2016 – page 12.
[6]. Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014pages 143-7.

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